WPI students refuse ExxonMobil CEO – join their guest commencement speaker!

By Linnea Palmer Paton

It is frustrating to receive an education that allows you to think critically about the world, only to discover that the university [WPI] that gave it to you is avoiding critical thought, in the name of the status quo.

Climate change is a widespread, desperately urgent and crucial problem faced by humanity, and it is the absolute responsibility of the engineering and science community, especially its universities, to take the lead on addressing it.

So, naturally, when students and faculty at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) found out a month ago that Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, would be speaking at commencement, many of them were furious.

They saw ExxonMobil as a canon for all things old and unsustainable: destruction of the environment, and the exploitation of two finite resources¾both the oil and the atmosphere’s storage capacity for CO2 waste.

This seemed incompatible with a ceremony understood to be about leaders and moving ahead, rather than about barons of the past. As one graduating senior puts it, “Being well-wished into our careers by Rex Tillerson is an insult to our generation. His leadership at ExxonMobil continues to threaten the peace, security, and prosperity of our futures. He is not a good role model, and we will not accept him as the figurehead of our graduation.”

Adding to the trouble was ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign aimed at the credibility of the scientific community. Shortly after the establishment of the Kyoto protocol in 1998, ExxonMobil launched a covert PR effort worth upwards of $16 million. A memo leaked from the company set the tactic: the think tanks hired by ExxonMobil would attempt to popularize the notion that scientists were undecided on global warming, in the hope of stalling further policy action [1].

So, immediately after the announcement, 22 WPI faculty members wrote a letter to WPI’s President, Dennis Berkey, calling for him to rescind Tillerson’s invitation. Over 250 students signed a petition opposing the choice and calling for more involvement in the speaker selection process. Then, students gathered around the WPI chapter of Students for Just and Stable Future (SJSF) to organize a campaign to educate the WPI community about social and environmental justice.

Amongst those, the members of the Class of 2011 found themselves in a conundrum. On one hand, they wished to participate in commencement as fully as possible, but found it would be unconscionable to sit passively during a commencement speech so thoroughly against their values. ExxonMobil had directly harmed the families’ of some students at WPI during the Valdez spill; it has funded disinformation against their disciplines; it has derailed climate change policies that are necessary to ensure a safe and stable world for their children and grand-children.

What to do? The philosophy of non-violence suggested a solution: they would withdraw their consent. But the university refused, and threatened to forbid the dissenting students from taking the stage to receive their degree.

This launched many weeks of contentious negotiation between SJSF and the administration, which included widespread news coverage and dozens of alumni speaking in favor of academic tolerance. WPI ultimately reversed its original position, and turned towards academic plurality. Rather than opposing the conscientious objectors, WPI agreed to support them. In addition to allowing them to enter the official ceremony after Tillerson had spoken, they offered them the same stage as Tillerson to (later that day) host their own counterpoint commencement.

Grateful for this opportunity to represent their vision of wisdom to the community, SJSF invited Richard Heinberg, Senior-Fellow at the Post Carbon Institute to give the counterpoint commencement address.

The students’ efforts gathered a large following online, on their website (wpi2011.wordpress.com), and also on Facebook. The page in support of the event grew to hundreds of readers, and now holds a rich discussion about our energy future.

The page now stand as a gathering point for people alarmed by the growing impact of global warming, who, according to 2011 survey released by MassInc, consists of thirty-three percent of Massachusetts residents [2]. Even ExxonMobil’s stockholder website in its statement on corporate responsibility, says (surprisingly, given their concurrent disinformation efforts) that global warming is a serious threat. Students have been further encouraged by a new report issued by the Vatican saying, “We call on all people and nations to recognize the serious and potentially reversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants […] If we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us […] humans must act decisively now to avert a coming crisis.”

Not only have students found support amongst alumni and parents, but they have also won the support of renowned author, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and the world’s largest day of environmental action. Generous support has also come to the Worcester students from many Boston groups, the Massachusetts Climate Action Network, the Better Future Project, and the Somerville Climate Action Network.

U.S. Senate-candidate Bob Massie sought to honors these students stating, “WPI’s students are excited to go into the world, using their education to enlighten our national conversation and solve our toughest engineering problems.

But they won’t get any lessons in either from ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, whose company has repeatedly been caught spreading disinformation about climate change – one of our greatest science and engineering problems—and spending millions of dollars a year to stop our political leaders from doing anything about it. With profits nearing $1 billion a week, Mr. Tillerson and his company are certainly very rich – and in our society that often passes for wisdom.”

This fight against big oil sharpened the political skill of many students who had chosen to go to WPI solely for its technical expertise. This bodes well, since this era stands out by the number of political problems heavily mediated by technology. Student and SJSF leader Linnea Palmer Paton said, “We are the future engineers and scientists who will lead the transition off fossil fuels. But we’re not going to do it quietly. Washington watch out. This is our future you’re compromising. If the deadlock on climate action isn’t broken soon, we’ll start running for office.”

WPI students are inviting the greater New England community to join them in making a stand for a just and sustainable future, by attending the Counterpoint Commencement with Richard Heinberg.

The event is free and open to all, on the 14th of May at 3 PM, after the formal commencement ceremony.